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Why Some Scientists Believe the Universe Is Conscious

They’re not mystics. But materialism is not giving good answers so they are looking around

It’s easy to mock the idea. But consider what neuroscientists studying consciousness are up against:

Traditionally, scientists have been stalwart materialists. But doing so has caused them to slam up against the limitations of materialism. Consider the chasm between relativity and quantum mechanics, or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and you quickly start to recognize these incongruities.

Philip Perry, “The universe may be conscious, say prominent scientists” at BigThink, June 25, 2017

Put another way, in a universe governed by uncertainty principles rather than hard facts, what is the “material” in materialism? There is no good materialist theory of consciousness; far from it, an article in Chronicles of Higher Education last year labeled the current research a “bizarre” field of science.

Consciousness depends on the brain, yes. But one may as well say that a student’s essay depends on her laptop. The laptop enables an essay that it does not create. Her ideas start elsewhere but where, exactly, do they start? What space do they inhabit?

Some prominent physicists and neuroscientists who cannot accept the idea of a separate immaterial reality (dualism) turn to the simplest alternative, that the whole universe participates in consciousness (panpsychism). Perry notes that this general approach is a staple of Hindu and Buddhist thought but a number of scientists whom one might expect to be materialists also favor it in various ways. Physicist Gregory Matloff even thinks that panpsychism might explain dark matter, the 95% of matter in our universe that must exist, on account of gravitational forces, but is otherwise unknown to us:

Veteran physicist Gregory Matloff of the New York City College of Technology, says he has some preliminary evidence showing that, at the very least, panpsychism isn’t impossible. Hey, it’s a start. Dr. Matloff told NBC News, “It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify.”

Philip Perry, “The universe may be conscious, say prominent scientists” at BigThink, June 25, 2017

He is testing this thesis via Parenago’s Discontinuity, an odd feature of the rotation of stars in the Milky Way.

Theoretical physicist Bernard Haisch, in 2006, suggested that consciousness is produced and transmitted through the quantum vacuum, or empty space. Any system that has sufficient complexity and creates a certain level of energy, could generate or broadcast consciousness.

Philip Perry, “The universe may be conscious, say prominent scientists” at BigThink, June 25, 2017

Theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler (1911–2008), a “giant of 20th century physics,” believed that “reality might not be a wholly physical phenomenon. In some sense, Wheeler suggested, reality grows out of the act of observation, and thus consciousness itself: it is “participatory.” Perry also cites Roger Penrose who, while not strictly a panpsychist, nonetheless says “Somehow, our consciousness is the reason the universe is here.”

That stuff, you may say, is a lot like Pareago’s odd stars in the Milky Way—pretty far out. But consider this: Some prominent neuroscientists, whom you might expect to be stark materialists, are also on board, including Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi. Philosopher Philip Goff surmises:

The panpsychist offers an alternative research programme: Rather than trying to account for consciousness in terms of utterly non-conscious elements, try to explain the complex consciousness of humans and other animals in terms of simpler forms of consciousness which are postulated to exist in simpler forms of matter, such as atoms or their sub-atomic components. This research project is still in its infancy. But a number of leading neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, are now finding that working within a panpsychist framework bears fruit. The more fruit is borne by this alternative research programme, the more reason we have to accept panpsychism.

Philip Goff, “Could electrons be conscious?Conscience and Consciousness

Koch and Tononi write cautiously but in an open-access research paper they acknowledge that their work “vindicates some panpsychist intuitions – consciousness is an intrinsic, fundamental property, is graded, is common among biological organisms, and even some very simple systems have some” (2014).

In Tononi’s view, consciousness requires a special kind of space called qualia space: “A conscious experience is a maximally reduced conceptual structure in a space called ‘qualia space.’ Think of it as a shape. But not an ordinary shape — a shape seen from the inside.” These do not sound like materialist intuitions.

Respected philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term hard problem of consciousness in 1995 because there were no good theories out there (and still aren’t), is sympathetic to panpsychism.

The main thing to see is that these prominent thinkers are driven to panpsychism because materialism about the mind doesn’t really work. So if panpsychism ends up seeming absurd, dualism—there really is an immaterial world—is also worth considering.

Dualist Michael Egnor, for example, responds to the idea that electrons may be conscious from a dualist perspective in which the mind is immaterial and therefore not part of the substance of what it surveys:

Consciousness always has an object, something to which it points. Thoughts are always about something. Thinking things (animals, humans) have the power to think about things. This property of “aboutness,” called intentionality by philosophers, is the hallmark of consciousness. Inanimate things have no inherent power of intentionality; they are never about anything. They merely exist.

Michael Egnor, “Are electrons conscious?” at Mind Matters News

In any event, he jokes, if electrons were conscious, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle guarantees that they could never make up their minds.

Eric Holloway offers several critiques of panpsychism, including:

At what point is a structure complex enough to become conscious? If we take away one particle from that structure then it must cease to be conscious. Likewise, there must be unconscious structures where the addition of a single particle causes them to suddenly become conscious. This also seems weird. But if we say there is no such “one particle” transition point, then no matter how many particles we remove from the structure, it must remain conscious—even to the point where there is only a single particle left. At which point, we are back to a conscious particle model, where at least some particles must be inherently conscious. And these particles must be fundamental, they cannot be built from other material objects otherwise we are back at the emergent consciousness model.

Eric Holloway, “No materialist theory of consciousness is plausible” at Mind Matters News

Despite these conundrums, bordering on absurdity, panpsychism seems to be gaining ground against materialism in science and philosophy:

Interest in panpsychism has grown in part thanks to the increased academic focus on consciousness itself following on from Chalmers’ “hard problem” paper. Philosophers at NYU, home to one of the leading philosophy-of-mind departments, have made panpsychism a feature of serious study. There have been several credible academic books on the subject in recent years, and popular articles taking panpsychism seriously.

Olivia Goldhill, “The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility” at Quartz (January 27, 2018)

Still, there are prices to pay:

Panpsychism doesn’t necessarily imply that every inanimate object is conscious. “Panpsychists usually don’t take tables and other artifacts to be conscious as a whole,” writes Hedda Hassel Mørch, a philosophy researcher at New York University’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness, in an email. “Rather, the table could be understood as a collection of particles that each have their own very simple form of consciousness.”

But, then again, panpsychism could very well imply that conscious tables exist: One interpretation of the theory holds that “any system is conscious,” says Chalmers. “Rocks will be conscious, spoons will be conscious, the Earth will be conscious. Any kind of aggregation gives you consciousness.”

Olivia Goldhill, “The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility” at Quartz (January 27, 2018)

If the immateriality of the mind is rejected in principle, one must, it seems, choose one’s absurdity.

Further reading on panpsychism:

No materialist theory of consciousness is plausible. All such theories either deny the very thing they are trying to explain, result in absurd scenarios, or end up requiring an immaterial intervention. (Eric Holloway)

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug Materialists have a solution to the problem of consciousness, and it may startle you


How can consciousness be a material thing? Maybe it can’t. But materialist philosophers face starkly limited choices in how to view consciousness.

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Why Some Scientists Believe the Universe Is Conscious